States Eye DOT Process to Split Florida Rail Grant

States Eye DOT Process to Split Florida Rail Grant

Even as Florida was finally shedding $2.4 billion in federal grants for a high-speed passenger rail project the governor killed, officials from other states were asking how the Department of Transportation might split up the money.

The last time it happened, newly elected governors in Wisconsin and Ohio together turned down nearly $1.2 billion in funding for increased Amtrak service on freight rail lines. Those governors had not yet taken office when Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in December awarded the money to other states with active intercity passenger rail projects, including Florida.

At a Washington, D.C. meeting early on March 4 of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, before the final Florida decision was known, Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo said if that project did not go forward "we'll be looking at a very fair, transparent process to quickly reallocate those dollars."

That meeting included representatives of many state departments of transportation, and Szabo said a reallocation of the Florida funds "could end up being tremendous opportunities for people around this table."

In December's redirection of unused grant money, the DOT decided on its own how to split up the money. Szabo was asked if this time the DOT might use a notice of funding availability, to which states might respond with new applications to compete for the money. But he only said that "it will be a fair, open and transparent process."

Another DOT official also left unclear how it will proceed, telling The Journal of Commerce the department "plans to evaluate our options for making this $2.4 billion available to states eager to develop high-speed rail corridors, where the business case is strong, in regions across the United States."

The process could be important for several reasons. Passenger rail plans have slowed down in some states, and the DOT would not want to be caught again as in Florida by sending more money to a state where officials may be having second thoughts or are not ready. Also, many states have received only part of the grant money they initially sought back in 2009 and 2010, while some of them or others might want the chance to propose new projects to win federal backing or expedite some they have on the drawing board.

But the DOT is also under pressure to have passenger rail money locked up quickly, since some budget cutters in Congress want to rescind grant money that has not been formally obligated to projects, and that money could become part of budget talks between the White House and congressional leaders.

Federal and state officials have pressed in recent weeks to finalize implementing contract negotiations for a $590 million grant to Washington state last weekend, and one that could any time for North Carolina worth $540 million.

-- Contact John D. Boyd at jboyd@joc.com.